Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

John Con­sta­ble, Clouds (1822). Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne; pur­chased through Fel­ton Be­quest 1938.

The English pain­ter John Con­sta­ble spent the sum­mers of 1821 and 1822 paint­ing clouds on Hamp­stead Heath in Lon­don with un­usual in­ten­sity and ap­pli­ca­tion. It was an ac­tiv­ity he called “sky­ing”; it was deadly se­ri­ous.

Con­sta­ble con­sid­ered paint­ing a science that in­ves­ti­gates the laws of na­ture. Ev­ery morn­ing at the same time he would leave his lodg­ings and walk to Prospect Walk, his pre­ferred spot on the heath from which to ob­serve the sky.

“The scene around his fold­ing seat,” wrote cloud his­to­rian Richard Ham­blyn, “was like an out­door man­u­fac­tur­ing lab­o­ra­tory.” He had many phials of paint­ing sub­stances with which to cap­ture his fleet­ing sub­ject. And when each study was fin­ished, he in­scribed weather notes on the back: the di­rec­tion and strength of the wind, the amount of pre­cip­i­ta­tion. The im­ages re­sult­ing from these sky­ing ses­sions are hard to clas­sify: are they fin­ished works of art or prepara­tory stud­ies?

Clouds, on dis­play at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, is still star­tling: its elab­o­rate gold frame an­nounc­ing it — a slice of na­ture — as a great work of art. This is how the Vic­to­rian critic John Ruskin saw the sky: as a per­pet­u­ally avail­able spec­ta­cle of won­der to which we pay too lit­tle at­ten­tion. For Con­sta­ble the sky was an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of land­scape paint­ing: it was a land­scape’s “key note”, he wrote, its chief “or­gan of sen­ti­ment.” Pain­ters had to learn to get it right.

In 1937, a prom­i­nent me­te­o­rol­o­gist wrote to The Times: he had no­ticed that Con­sta­ble’s skies were so ac­cu­rate, so leg­i­ble, that the artist must have known of the work of Luke Howard, who a cou­ple of years ear­lier had ac­com­plished the task of clas­si­fy­ing clouds. Not nec­es­sar­ily, replied a cor­re­spon­dent: a close knowl­edge of skies is just what you would ex­pect from some­one who, like Con­sta­ble, spent his child­hood work­ing on his fa­ther’s Suf­folk wind­mill.

Con­sta­ble cer­tainly paid close at­ten­tion to the par­tic­u­lar­ity of a cloudy sky, the way in which each sky was both unique but also pre­dictable in its un­der­ly­ing pat­tern. He no­ticed, for in­stance, how so-called “mes­sen­ger” clouds close to the earth would move faster than the big­ger cloud from which they had be­come de­tached, and how they were usu­ally in shadow.

Af­ter un­der­tak­ing his cloud stud­ies, the skies in his land­scape paint­ings (the block­busters for which he is best known) be­came more be­liev­able, adding to the re­al­ity and drama of the scene (as they do in the an­i­mated films of Hayao Miyazaki one of a few artists who bear com­par­i­son). The skies in­tro­duce a par­tic­u­lar tem­po­ral as­pect to an im­age, for clouds tell us of im­pend­ing con­di­tions, or those that have just passed. Skies tell a story, though one that is only partly leg­i­ble even to sea­soned in­ter­preters such as sailors, me­te­o­rol­o­gists or millers, who try to pre­dict fu­ture weather from the clouds.

For ro­man­tics such as Con­sta­ble, na­ture was a refuge. The sky moved him in a way com­pa­ra­ble to that de­scribed by his con­tem­po­rary Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, who wrote: “I love waves, and winds, and storms, / Ev­ery­thing al­most / Which is Na­ture’s, and may be / Un­tainted by man’s mis­ery.” It’s a dis­po­si­tion that is no longer ten­able. One re­sult of grow­ing aware­ness of cli­mate change means that we can no longer take such un­al­loyed plea­sure in weather ef­fects as a realm “un­tainted by man’s mis­ery”.

Oil on pa­per on card­board, 30 x 48.8cm

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